Educators looking to improve their craft should start by examining the learning environment they provide to their pupils. In Dr. Tony Bates on Building Effective Learning Environments he defines a learning environment as ‘The total context in which students are working’ (Bates, 2015). Effective teachers will consider a multitude of dynamics before creating an appropriate learning environment, while other teachers may not even consider the environment or fail to recognize significant components of the learning environment. In any case, learning environments are important because they are the foundation of learning. By having a significant learning environment, students will increase their digital literacy skills, take ownership of their learning, and increase their achievement levels. Therefore, it is essential that teachers adopt the perspective of creating significant learning environments and take steps to make it effective. In this essay we will examine theories that support creating significant learning environments, identify some of the challenges, and inspire other teachers to create their own significant learning environments.
Support for creating significant learning environments comes from Authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in their book, A New Culture of Learning (2011). In this work, Thomas and Brown address how people are learning and what learning will likely look like in the Twenty-first century. They argue, ‘learning should be viewed in terms of an environment combined with the rich resources provided by the digital information network’ (Thomas, 2011). They further argue that traditional models of teaching are out; that standardizing education and testing are ineffective at educating our youth (Thomas, 2011). While this argument may seem similar to arguments that state ‘the school model is broken,’ Thomas and Brown take a different stance. They claim that the school system should be viewed as an environment and cannot be viewed as broken because environments cannot be broken; instead, they can either be effective or ineffective (Thomas, 2011). Thus, our current school environment is ineffective, not broken, and one way educators can combat this is to create significant learning environments to enhance learning in our current education system.
After establishing schools are in fact learning environments, Thomas and Brown take a holistic approach to analyze various learning environments in order to understand how people are learning in the Twenty-first century and how learning environments can be more efficient. The authors derive several truths about learning and learning environments, including: Arch of Life Learning, the overall wealth of resources the internet provides, the increased importance of community and mentorship, and the importance of play. To further inspire educators to create significant learning environments, we will examine these concepts in detail so that teachers will understand the dynamics of contemporary learning environments.
In chapter one, Thomas and Brown start by defining Arch of Life Learning as ‘the learning we do in our daily lives that keeps us growing’ (Thomas 2011). They establish that this Arch of Life Learning is done casually and effortlessly the majority of the time and that formal learning can and should be done similarly. If students are used to having learning come easy to them then we as teachers should try to create a similar learning environment for our students. When students are faced with difficult learning, they often become frustrated and give up on learning, or begin to doubt themselves. When teachers create easy learning opportunities, they can avoid this dilemma. Therefore, teachers should strive to create an environment in which learning is easy for students.
In order to make learning easy, many teachers turn to educational technologies as a viable solution. Educational technologies, including the internet, provide a wealth of resources that can be used to support culturally unique learners at various learning levels (Thomas, 2011). Another benefit of the internet is its open accessibility allowing user to access learning at all times, not to mention its ease of use and popularity with young adults. In chapter 8 of A New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown examine leading research by Mizuko Ito to learn more about how young people are learning through social media networks.
Thomas and Brown determine that there are three factors that allow young adults to learn through social media with great success in digital learning environments, they are: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out (Thomas, 2011). The authors derive that these three phases occur simultaneously and are why social media and digital environments are so successful in educating our youth. If teachers are able to learn from these principles they will better be able to create significant learning environments. Therefore, in order to build effective learning environments these three factors must be examined.
The first topic Thomas and Brown discuss in chapter 8 is described as ‘hanging out’. Hanging out ‘is much more than a feeling of presence or belonging, it is the first step in the process of indwelling’ (Thomas, 2011). The authors argue, instead, that hanging out involves more than establishing an identity and belonging, it requires learning how to be with others through digital mediums (Thomas 2011). This is in fact, an opportunity for students to learn and practice effective digital citizenship. As students determine how to interact with each other they begin to build relationships and a community centered around learning. In this community, peer-to-peer mentorship opportunities are abound and offer a collective learning environment that supports learning that is dynamic and responsive to learners’ individual needs (Thomas, 2011). This is a primary reason for why online communities are so effective in transferring knowledge.
Another important factor in creating a significant learning environment is a student’s ability to ‘mess around’ (Thomas, 2011). Thomas and Brown credit a student’s ability to mess around as being able to explore, place items into context, and extend their understanding; it is generally self taught and is loosely goal directed (Thomas, 2011). A major concept of messing around is that the students are leading their own learning through their own inquiries and self discovery. The goal for teachers, however, is to guide their exploration through overall goals for learning in the course. When properly guided, students will be driven by their own interests in course material and discover course information on their own, allowing them to make unique and long-lasting connections to course concepts. As students become more comfortable with this type of learning they will see that they are able to learn effectively in all sorts of other learning inquiries because in essence, teachers are teaching students how to learn through their guidance.
The last factor to creating a significant digital learning environment is to allow the students to ‘geek out’ (Thomas, 2011). The term geeking out is used to describe the experience one can have in accessing the vast amount of information experts provide on the internet (Thomas, 2011). While it is true the internet holds an immense amount of information, the vastness of the internet requires teachers to train students on how to access, identify, and cite appropriate resources on the internet, or, for younger learners the teacher may filter out and provide approved resources to the students. By training students how to use the resources of the internet and allowing them to select which resources to learn from, teachers are in essence practicing differentiation of course materials to all their students, a concept that is highly regarded amongst pedagogy elitists. In addition to differentiating material, students are also learning and practicing digital literacy skills as they learn to navigate through the internet to accomplish goals and tasks. This is a skill that many jobs require and it will help students them in their daily lives as well.
In addition to the previous three elements that support learners in online environments, Thomas and Brown discuss the importance of ‘play’ as a component of learning (Thomas, 2011). Specifically, Thomas and Brown state that play is ‘the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules’ (Thomas, 2011). If teachers think of play in this regard and apply it to learning concepts within their environments, then play allows participants to apply knowledge, question legitimacy, use their imagination to solve problems, and re-organize information (Thomas, 2011). In the act of playing, participants are engaged in learning without even knowing it, thus they are enjoying learning. Furthermore, these activities ignite innovation and creativity as students solidify their knowledge (Thomas, 2011). If teachers are able to teach through playing they will be sure to see an increase student engagement and will be preparing students to solve future problems with confidence and out-of-the-box thinking.
Coincidentally, there will be challenges to creating significant learning environments. The most significant challenge will be creating effective games for which kids will play and target specific learning outcomes. This will require significant creativity, planning, testing, and revising. However, with time and grit, creating lessons through the act of play can be accomplished.
Another challenge that teachers may struggle with is relinquishing their control of learning and allowing students the opportunity to learn through each other and self discovery. As previously mentioned through Mizuko Ito’s study, students are already learning in this kind of environment, however, many teachers are not accustomed to this method. This will require teachers to trust their students, create meaningful goals, and design learning checkpoints to help keep learning on track.
Another challenge will be teaching students to use digital learning tools. This will be challenging in that students coming into the course will have varying levels of digital literacy. It will therefore be up to the teacher to effectively teach the students how to: use the features of the digital learning environment, interact and participate within the environment, and how to effectively use the internet as a resource. In order to accomplish these tasks the teacher will need to model, set expectations, and create consequences for how students will behave and use the resources provided within environment. It would also be wise to assess the students knowledge of these items in order to maintain complete transparency of expectations assure that students digital literacy skills are up to par.
In conclusion, the theories we examined support creating significant learning environments. Learning environments are the foundation of learning, and are therefore important for teachers to consider. Though there are challenges teachers will face in creating them, research from Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of Learning guides teachers to create significant, effective environments through research of how students are already learning outside of school. Therefore, teachers should consider these dynamics and more in order to create a significant learning environment. Once an effective environment is in place you are sure to be rewarded as learning will be insuppressible and limitless.
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